The transferware engraver; practice, scope and impact at the Spode Works
This research will examine the role of the copper-plate engraver in the transfer-printed ceramic industry, notably the process of image selection, use and modification. The investigation is focused on the archival, artefactual and documentary evidence specific to the Spode engravers and takes as its prime evidence, the hand-engraved copper-plates (along with apprentice plates) that were created at Spode to produce under-glaze transfer-printed wares between 1784 and 2008.
Transfer printing on ceramics arose as an attempt to replicate the look of the expensive hand-painted blue-and-white Chinese export-porcelains that found popularity in the West during the seventeenth and eighteenth century. The 1780s saw the expansion of the transfer printing process to earthenware products that were relatively cheap, hard-wearing and could be mass-produced. Spode Works, founded in 1770, began producing transferware in 1784, and was to make significant improvements over earlier manifestations of the process, for example the ‘under-the-glaze’ prints produced at Worcester and Caughley in about 1750 and the ‘on-the-glaze’ techniques trialled slightly earlier.
The literature on transferware is largely orientated to the collector and researched by collectors and dealers. Investigations have mainly dealt with factory identification, date, pattern derivation and evaluation of merit and value. Coysh and Henrywood (1982) briefly discuss engravers and copper plates, but only in a broadly descriptive way. Drakard and Holdway (1983 ) have looked specifically at the technical history of transfer printing and engraving at the Spode Works; their work gives insight into the importance of engraving in the process, but does not clarify the role of the engraver. Works on the history of engravers/engraving have largely ignored the ceramic industry.
This research will expand and build upon existing works combining object-based study and historical documents. Ultimately, the research will provide justification for saving and preserving the Spode copper plate archive. The extent and integrity of this archive (40,000 pieces) is what makes it unique within the United Kingdom. Many similar archives have been melted down for scrap because of the inherent value. A main aim is to illustrate that the historical and cultural value far exceeds the scrap value.
My theoretical approach is one of scientific connoisseurship, material culture studies and new art history that includes the social and cultural context.
Object-based observational studies of primary source material in the copper plate archive, factory records, pattern books, interviewees’ material and associated ephemera. Additionally, digital archives and online collections will be studied.
I will undertake documentary-based, archival study of the visual differences between source and product through the engraving process. I aim to discover if the variances were for political or social reasons, were solely for the proposed market or purely out of simplification so that a pattern would ‘work’ better in terms of fit and aesthetics on a ware. Additionally, to study the disparities in the wares produced that were caused by re-working/re-engraving tired plates due to wear. Furthermore, the research will assess the Spode engravers within the broader context of contemporary industries and engraving.